Learning Signed English has enabled Chae Enns

Breaking down barriers

Students, teachers learn sign language to help classmate

Seven-year-old Chae Enns was having a hard time communicating with anyone — until he was given the gift of sign language.

Chae has Down syndrome and struggles with verbal communication. “Most of his communication is nonverbal, he says very little,” said Helena Prins, a kindergarten teacher at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Langford.

Prins started looking into sign language out of “pure desperation.” She turned to the Internet and began looking up a sign or two to teach him.

It worked.

“We reached a wall, he was so frustrated,” Prins said. “He is a very social boy, and he could understand what everyone around him was saying.”

Once he learned a few signs of the Signed English system, Chae’s behaviour and temperament improved.

“When I started here he had behaviour problems, he was frustrated, and he couldn’t express himself,” said Cassandra Nardini, a Lighthouse education assistant. “He’s very well-behaved now.”

Teaching Chae to sign was only part of what needed to happen. Once Chae knew how to sign, others needed to learn too, so he could communication effectively.

The school hired Dorothy Tait, an augmentative communication consultant to teach signing to staff members.

Several teachers, including Chae’s future Grade 1 teacher, the principal, vice-principal and education assistants are learning to speak with their hands.

“The whole community is supporting this child,” Tait said. “Everyone is learning it because they want to.”

With so many people in the school able to communicate with Chae, the responsibility has been shared, Prins said. “That’s what makes it so special.”

Chae started kindergarten in January for a second time, and is entering in Grade 1 next fall.

Kids in his class are learning to sign as well. In some situations when Chae feels he is being treated unfairly, he is able to use his hands to tell them that he is feeling angry. All his classmates can understand him.

“It allows the kids to interact with him,” Nardini said adding his peers will travel through school with him over the next few years.

Some Chae’s family members have attended classes along with school staff. “I need to practise more. Chae is actually teaching me, he’s very enthusiastic,” said Becky Enns, Chae’s mother.

Another bonus that stems from the sign language is his verbal communication has been slowly progressing as well.

“I make him say the word as well as the sign,” said Becky. “Learning the words has been a challenge.”




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